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Friday, 21 February 2014

Lisbon 1755, Napier 1931, Beatles, Jazz and God


(the sermon is not based on the readings of the day!)

On Saturday, 1st November 1755, the Feast of All Saints, a massive earthquake struck the region around Lisbon, Portugal. Centred 200 kilometres off shore, the 8.5 magnitude quake generated a massive tsunami and fire that took up to 100,000 lives. It remains one of humanity’s greatest catastrophes.

It also rang the death knoll of what we call “Christendom”, the era spanning some 12 centuries, when church and state cozied together in the bed of Europe. That was an era during which the simple justice- and faith-based message and life of a rural Jewish carpenter was turned into a system of oppression and control. Sadly it was also the era Christianity reached out through the colonial world.

By Tuesday 3rd February 1931 that was history. When my predecessor Dean Brocklehurst gathered a few parishioners together for a small regular service that morning their practice was far from the mainstream practice it had been in Portugal on All Saints’ Day 1755. For some, especially men who had seen the horrors of the Great War, God was already dead. For others God was dying his last gasps. The first sexual revolution, that of the Flappers, of D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield and the devotees of Madame Blavatsky, was already giving him the Last Rites. The second sexual revolution of the Beatles era would soon bury him.

The faith of those gathered with Dean Brocklehurst was probably fairly conservative. Teachings of his day were of a rather strict and formal, distant god. This stern god had survived Lisbon and was an instrument of instruction ensuring that natives and children were well-behaved. The intelligentsia though rid themselves of God, for god as guarantor of personal survival had died in Lisbon with 100,000 souls. Over the next 150 years God as a national assurance of military victory also died, dead in the mud of the trenches as both sides sought his help.

Dean Brocklehurst and those injured or killed around him were dwelling in what would soon be clearly seen as a rearguard action. Their faith is now often mocked as a fairy tale belief in an Imaginary Friend. Today faith is seen as crackpot, silly, marginal – though the aftermath of 9/11 suggested for a short time that there are still some who, as martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, will turn to God when sore afraid.

Nevertheless, out of the rubble of the first cathedral here a new cathedral grew, and out of the rubble of Napier a new Napier grew, and out of the rubble of the gung-ho developers of the 1970s and ’80s a new celebration of things Art Deco grew, and we are here together annually, remembering (literally meaning that we are pulling together and making present again the members, the elements, of those earlier times). We watch, too, as the rubble of Christchurch is slowly transformed into a new infrastructure, a new place of laughter and tears and birth and death.  We watch the phoenix rising. For I would rather define this renewed trust in life, this renewed hope as “resuscitation” or “rising phoenix” than use the word “resurrection.”  I reserve that word for a unique event 2,000 years ago and its impact on my death and yours.

Gradually, ever so slowly, as is God’s wont, something else is growing out of the ashes of Lisbon 250 years ago and out of Europe’s great wars, and even worse, out of the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Hiroshima and Nagasaki: slowly theologians and teachers have begun to realize that the all-conquering god who died in the rubble of Europe on All Saints’ Day 1755, and the tribal god who died in the trenches and killing fields of 20th century wars (and whose epitaph was so brilliantly written by the war poets) – and the god who dies today amidst cries of "Allahu Akbar" in new killing fields of Syria and Sudan: that god in any form is an imposter.

Slowly since Lisbon our prayers have begun to speak of and to a different God: not a banner waving or neon lit god but a suffering God who was crucified, and who died as if in the rubble of Lisbon and the European cities like Dresden and the concentration camps and the scorched earth of nuclear holocaust, and who died with Edith Mary Barry and Kate Williams in or soon after the destruction of this cathedral’s predecessor, and who struggled in the soul of poor Doctor Waterworth who spent the rest of his life wondering if he had done the right thing in administering a fatal dose of morphine to Mrs. Barry, because ethics is never easy. A God who struggles to be born in your soul and mine as we too face whatever torment and inevitable death lies ahead of us; only then God breathes the unique moment of resurrection into us and makes real at last the greatest joy of all.

In other words, slowly, ever so slowly, since 1755, theologians (not all) rediscovered the God who cried out on the Cross, the God who cried “my God my God, why have you forsaken me”, and the God who breathes resurrection-life even greater than resuscitation into Edith Mary Barry and Kate Williams and your loved ones and mine, the God who says that death is not the end, that No is not the answer, that Yes is the final word in the universe, the God who waits patiently for our love in response.

That God – not even the phoenix god of finding fun again, but the God still there when all fun ceases – that is the God whose hope we must seek always to proclaim in our words and in our prayers in and from this Cathedral of St John, if this place is truly to be a place of resurrection, life, and hope!


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